Monday, January 27, 2014

Suddenly, the end…mostly

I have reached the point in my life and career where, while I’m not reading any less, mustering the time and mental energy to write book reviews that are worth anything has become a challenge. It’s hard to walk away, but the older I get, the more I find that the world gets by just fine somehow without my opinions on everything, much as I love to give them.

I began this blog in 2007 as a personal exercise to help me hone my ability to read critically and analytically. To that end, I consider this endeavor to have been a great success (and I think that if you compare my recent entries with some of the earlier ones, you’ll probably agree).

If you have derived any enjoyment over the years from The Book Review, I’m glad. If I’ve upset you with anything I’ve written here, I’m sorry; I could have been gentler, especially early on. Beyond that, I regret only that I never came up with a good name for the thing.

The Book Review will remain up in perpetuity; however, this is the final post.

And yet…like a phoenix from the ashes rises a new blog: This Masters of the Universe-only site will archive everything ­MOTU-related that we’ve looked at on this site (that content will remain here as well), and it is there that I will continue to take quarterly looks at the current DC monthly, plus whatever else appears in the future as well as the odds and ends from the 1980s that I missed the first time around.

Below, you will find my final review on this site. I think it’s an appropriate bridge between the two blogs.  

Goodbye from The Book Review, and, one last time, thanks for reading.


Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation is Scheimer’s 2012 autobiography, which he wrote with Andy Mangels. Scheimer co-founded Filmation in 1962, and he was the only one left when the sale to L’Oreal shut the company down in 1989. As such, this book also serves as a comprehensive history of Filmation, which is best known for such cartoons as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and Star Trek: The Animated Series.

The book begins with Scheimer’s parents’ immigration to the United States and his childhood and schooling; from the foundation of Filmation onward, Scheimer keeps things mostly chronological but largely gives a show-by-show account of events. I only have one real complaint about the way the book is laid out—it would have been nice to get more information on the animation process earlier in the book so that certain portions would be easier to follow.

The book has a very conversational tone, which makes it extremely engaging. Scheimer’s personality really comes through unfiltered, and by all accounts, he was quite a character. He never met a tangent he didn’t like, but most of what he has to say is so interesting that it’s easily forgiven (e.g., his dad purportedly punched Hitler in the face).

Scheimer heavily emphasizes his passion and vision for animation throughout the book. He was a trailblazer, he says, for incorporating racial diversity into children’s cartoons, and for producing material that communicated values, morals, and instruction. He was also committed to keeping animation jobs in the United States when most studios were sending large amounts of work overseas (this is, in fact, one of the primary reasons for Filmation’s well-known and oft-maligned stock animation system.

This is a huge book—8.5” by 11”, and almost 300 pages—and it’s kind of unwieldy. It’s worth wrestling with, though, because of the vast number of pictures. Contrary to what its Amazon page would lead you to believe, however, the book is not in full color. Only pp. 209–224 are; the rest are in black and white, so caveat emptor. The book really could have done with some serious copyediting, especially to clean up Scheimer’s serial misuse of “I” when he should have used “me” and the redundancies in the writing (Mangels, isn’t that your job?).

For me, at least, the production and editorial knocks on the book are readily forgivable. Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation gave me a new appreciation for Scheimer, for Filmation, and for some of the cartoons I grew up with; I’m grateful simply that the book exists.

If any of the Filmation shows you grew up with are still meaningful to you as an adult, odds are you’ll find Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation well worth your time.


Monday, January 20, 2014

THE WILL OF THE WANDERER by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

The Will of the Wanderer is a 1988 fantasy novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the first in their Rose of the Prophet trilogy. Here, a god demands that two warring clans unite through marriage to combat a larger threat.

The Arabian setting is a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre, which is obviously dominated by Tolkien-influenced analogs of Europe—although all the characters here are, for some reason, still explicitly white. The writers’ desert world is vividly described—it really comes to life—and the swashbuckling action fits the setting well.  

But the writers take these Arabian sensibilities and go way over the top with them. The Will of the Wanderer is a sitcom, a romantic comedy largely devoid of romance (it’s not very funny, either). Nearly every character is conveniently clueless; nearly everyone’s response to most any development is an emotional knee-jerk overreaction or something comparably ridiculous. The world is thoroughly populated by cartoon characters, mortal and immortal alike. This can make it hard to invest in the dramatic proceedings.

The plot, which operates on two levels—one with the gods and one with the humans—works well enough, although it gets pulled down by all the aforementioned frustrating buffoonery, without which nearly all the conflict would be satisfactorily resolved by the end of this volume. Moreover, the silly tone the authors use to handle their gods, faith, and religions might come across to the reader as mocking of real-world religion and its establishments, whether intentional or not.

In sum, then, The Will of the Wanderer is a passably entertaining but frequently irritating novel. I won’t be continuing with this trilogy.  


Monday, January 13, 2014

SAGA, VOLUME ONE by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume One (2013) collects the first six issues of the Image comic written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. Here, two lovers whose people are at war attempt to flee the planet with their newborn baby.

Saga is an interesting and imaginative blend of science fiction and fantasy that calls to mind both Star Wars and Mass Effect, but which does so without feeling particularly derivative. Vaughan has created a cast of good characters, all with believable motivations. In fact, The Will and Prince Robot IV might be more interesting and more sympathetic than the wishy-washy Marko (although he gets better quickly) and the walking annoying rage tantrum that is Alana. The themes of parenting and family are particularly well done, though, which makes them endearing enough.  

Saga is consistently explicit, both in terms of violence and sex. At times, this is used to good storytelling effect (e.g., Prince Robot IV and his wife in issue #1), but more often, it’s just gratuitous. In combination with some of the dialogue, Saga sometimes feels like Vaughan is trying too hard to be edgy, and it works a lot better when he’s not.

Entirely apart from this issue, Staples’ art is quite good. Her characters are realistic, and she uses backgrounds to create a rich world. The highlight, though, is her faces, which are excellent both in their expression and consistency. The only real complaint with the art is that the heavy inks on the characters often make them look like paper cutouts overlaid on the much softer backgrounds.

So, while it’s got a few issues, Saga is a reasonably compelling story that’s rich with potential. I don’t know that I’d run out for Volume Two, but I was invested enough to wonder, at least, what happened next.


Monday, January 6, 2014



He-Man and the Masters of the Universe #7–9 (DC) are written by Dan Abnett and illustrated by Rafael Kayanan and Michael S. O’Hare. Here, when Randor leads an attack on a Horde archaeological dig, Hordak nukes the site from orbit, leading the Heroic Warriors to undertake a forbidden journey to Subternia in an attempt to resurrect the Sorceress. No, seriously.  

From the first panel, Abnett tries to go high fantasy with the dialogue and narration. You’ll recall that Giffen did too—sometimes. Abnett, at least, is consistent, and so it works a lot better. The scripting isn’t anything fantastic, but there’s a conspicuous absence of any petty bickering. In fact, Abnett’s Teela isn’t too far off from the 200X Teela: sassy, but not obnoxious so. On the heels of the complete disaster that was Giffen’s scripting, this is a major upgrade that imbues every page of these comics with the refreshing breeze of not flagrantly sucking.  

Beyond the fact that on the face of it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, the plot is also fair; I’m not sorry to move the story away from the Horde for a while. Unfortunately, the pace isn’t great. There’s too much fighting and too much expository speechifying (including a great deal of mystical mumbo jumbo concerning the Goddess). Since we’re not getting any character development for any of these people, we need to be getting a good amount of storytelling accomplished, and we just aren’t—there seems to be a ton of ground to cover (or to skip over) to resolve this storyline by the end of #12.   

Other thoughts on the writing: Iron Pants He-Man still isn’t doing much; he’s just part of the team. In fact, it’s obvious who the most powerful of the Heroic Warriors is: Moss Man. For reals. It’s not even close. And everybody just calls Iron Pants He-Man “Adam.” Given all this, it might be time to retitle the book. If you don’t like Adam and the Masters of the Universe, plain old Masters of the Universe would certainly fit better, as would, perhaps, Justice League of Eternia.

The decision to make Grizzlor, of all people, the Horde’s sophisticated tactician is an interesting one, but it works well enough. Man-At-Arms is conspicuous by his absence, although Randor fills his role as the group’s strategic planner, wearer of sweet knobbly armor, and  one that has a gun. Abnett also seems to be going out of his way to drop these characters’ “real” names from the MOTU Classics line whenever possible. Gur’rull Gu’rroooow? Sure, buddy. Whatever you want. Also, we really could have used some better editing.

Kayanan does the art for #7 and #8. There are some nice touches: a lot of the classic vehicles appear, for example, and Grizzlor’s cloak is clearly made from the Mattel Fright Zone dragon puppet (but why does Stratos look like Spider-Man?). However, Kayanan uses heavy, messy inks, his figures often look flat, and his human faces aren’t good at all—it’s an ugly style that doesn’t work for me at all. It also makes for a jarring transition to O’Hare’s art in #9, which is clean, bright, and vibrant. It’s a style that fits what He-Man is supposed to be all about (although…would one background be too much to ask for?). The short-term good news is that O’Hare is listed as the artist on #10–12. The only other art-related comment I have is that the cover for #7 is probably the worst I’ve seen since Marvel put Hordak’s giant head on the cover of Masters of the Universe #4 (in which he didn’t even appear) in 1986.

So then: while these are, overall, some pretty mediocre comics, they’re also the most unterrible He-Man comics we’ve seen in many moons. By God, these things are readable. I’ve been subjected to too much to get my hopes up, but #10–12 certainly have the potential to be the most unterrible comics yet.